Family Portrait

Family Portrait

Photo: Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005, by LaToya Ruby Frazier. © LaToya Ruby Frazier

Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005, by LaToya Ruby Frazier. © LaToya Ruby Frazier.

At first, you might feel you are intruding. This is a private moment. A mother helping her daughter prepare for the outside world. On the table, tools suggest the work to be done: aluminum foil, combs, an open jar of Vaseline. The curtains are closed. The women share a glance meant only for themselves.

Then again—there’s the camera, the third member of this family tableau. It faces the mirror almost boldly. It waits to bring the scene to a future stranger.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, here seated with her mother, has said that she wants to make the pictures of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, what the Farm Security Administration “photographs would have been like if the family members had photographed themselves in the Great Depression.” Braddock is a borough of Pittsburgh; Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill there. But most of the region’s mills closed by the 1980s. Former workers were left in poverty. Politicians treated the suburb as a ghost town, though many inhabitants had stayed. the University of Pittsburgh shut the community hospital, citing lack of use, even as industrial waste was killing workers and their relatives. Frazier’s grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. Her mother has chest pains, seizures, and shortness of breath. Notice the bottle of medication on the corner of the vanity.

In The Notion of Family, her first book, Frazier alternates photographs of her mother and grandmother at home with images of the town itself. Some are photographs she began taking in her early twenties. Some recall her childhood memories. In between, we see Braddock, depleted, yet not empty. “Family” as Frazier presents it, means not only relatives but also protesters demonstrating for better healthcare and rows of apartment complexes in which other households struggle to live. The photographs have the intimacy of a familiar scene, but the book’s strength comes from all that she includes in this family album.

Madeleine Schwartz is an editor at large at Dissent. Photo: Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005, by LaToya Ruby Frazier. © LaToya Ruby Frazier.